It’s going to be awhile before Israel has a new government, but in the meantime, there is a lot of political drama on the Israeli political scene. Last month’s election produced a parliament with 10 party factions. It reflects the full diversity of the country, including seven seats held by parties on the far right and 13 Arab party seats. But neither leader of the two largest parties, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayhu’s Likud nor Benny Gantz’s Blue and White can form a government with other parties deemed their natural political allies.
The electoral system may seem unwieldy to an American, but it suits Israel well. Just bear in mind the American system only makes sense to Americans because it’s familiar. Try to explain the Electoral College to Israelis and why Donald Trump won the 2016 election with fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. But that also make sense in a federal system like the United States, so voters from a handful of large states can’t decide who’s president.
Israel’s system of proportional representation always produces a parliament with a large number of parties. Becoming prime minister requires a party leader to garner the support of at least 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. That proved impossible for Netanyahu and Gantz in April, so there was a new election in September. But we still have no government.
The main reason for the deadlock is that Yisrael Beiteinu party leader Avigdor Lieberman, a onetime aide to Netanyahu, holds an eight-seat balance of power between a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu and a center-left one that Gantz would head. Lieberman is as right-wing as Netanyahu, but he detests the prime minister.
Nehemia Shtrasler, a columnist for Haaretz, where I work, put it this way this month: “Lieberman is the only person in Israeli politics willing to have an eye gouged out if Netanyahu lost both of his. Actually, Lieberman would be willing to lose both eyes.”
What about a unity government? Gantz wouldn’t have the magic 61 seats even with his “natural allies” and Lieberman’s eight seats. The alternative is a unity government between Netanyahu and Gantz in which the two would serve as prime minister for about two years each. Netanyahu insists on going first, but that proves problematic if he is indicted on corruption charges, which could happen within weeks. Netanyahu will be a spent force, even in a unity government. His right-wing policies would thankfully be tempered by Gantz’s moderation.
And the Trump factor: During the campaign, Netanyahu touted the unprecedented ties he developed with the U.S. president. But after Netanyahu’s electoral loss in September, Trump turned his back on Netanyahu.
I think Israelis are finally waking up to the realization that Trump is unpredictable and even unhinged. If they were willing to accept a bit of craziness from the president because he professed his undying commitment to support Israel, now in addition to giving Netanyahu the cold shoulder, they are witnessing how he is capable of utterly abandoning another U.S. ally in the Middle East, the Kurds in Syria. Trump has no commitment to anyone other than himself, it turns out.
And to those who voted for Trump, in part over his support for Israel, I would urge them to think twice when voting next year. If he survives impeachment and is the Republican candidate for president next year, I’m casting my vote for any Democrat who can defeat him.
It would be a particularly big win for Israel and America to have both Netanyahu and Trump out of office.
Cliff Savren is a former Clevelander who covers the Middle East for the Columbus Jewish News from Ra’anana, Israel. To read more of Savren’s columns, visit cjn.org/savren.